Saving the Jaguar
The jaguar is an icon of wildness. But as late as 1999, little was known about jaguar behavior and less about its status in the wild. Habitat was disappearing. Conflict with ranchers was increasing, and the preferred solution was lethal for jaguars. Although the species was thought to have disappeared from much of its range, little scientific data existed, and reliable survey methods had yet to be developed.
That year, jaguar biologists meeting in Mexico determined that all this had to change. To this end, they founded the Jaguar Conservation Program (JCP), now led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, which is
• Deploying a teams of field scientists to document the jaguar's true status in the wild;
• Documenting critical jaguar populations;
• Identifying and mapping corridors connecting jaguar populations throughout Mesoamerica and South America;
• Negotiating national and site-specific conservation plans; and
• Collaborating with ranchers to address the root causes of conflict with jaguars.
To date, jaguar biologists working under the JCP have estimated that jaguars currently inhabit 60% of the species' historic range. However, given pervasive habitat loss and fragmentation, continuing development, conflict, and hunting of jaguars and their prey, areas considered important for the long-term survival of jaguars are now believed to make up only 10% of the species' historic range.
These so-called Jaguar Conservation Units (JCUs) are defined as areas with a stable prey base that are known or believed to contain a self-sustaining population of at least 50 breeding jaguars, or areas containing fewer jaguars but with sufficient habitat and a stable prey base that would allow jaguar populations to increase if existing threats were alleviated. To date 90 JCU's have been identified in 18 countries extending from Mexico to northern Argentina.
Remarkably, genetic analysis of jaguar populations indicates that despite extensive fragmentation jaguar populations are not yet genetically isolated. The jaguar remains a single species with no sub-specific differentiation across it range. Jaguar populations are apparently still connected by landscape corridors that jaguars can sometimes pass through safely, even in fragmented and partially developed landscapes.
Panthera biologists have identified likely corridors connecting all of the identified JCUs and are in the process of surveying them to determine their use and viability. Importantly, corridors that allow jaguars to disperse also serve to maintain genetic interchange between populations of numerous other species.
Maintaining corridors across occupied and often private lands requires the assent, participation and continuing tolerance of affected landowners and communities, as well as the official sanction and enabling framework of government policy. Through its Jaguar Corridor Initiative, Panthera is active in 13 counties and so far has obtained supporting Memoranda of Understanding with the governments of Colombia, Guyana, Panama, Costa Rica, and Honduras. To date, Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, and Panama have adopted official national action plans for jaguars. Equador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are currently developing national plans.
For its part, Wildlife Conservation Society jaguar biologists are working to advance jaguar conservation in major JCUs in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru.
In addition to documenting the jaguar population status, habitat use, movement patterns and behavior, both WCS and Panthera biologists are assessing and working to address direct threats to persistence and recovery of jaguar populations, including widespread hunting of jaguars and their prey and, most critically, extensive but potentially avoidable conflict between jaguars and livestock producers that provokes intolerance and frequent and often indiscriminant retaliatory killing.
For its part, the foundation has invested $2.2 million to advance jaguar research and conservation since 2002.